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A Coronavirus Spike In A Big City, And In A Small One


Cities like New York and Seattle have been devastated by the coronavirus outbreak, and new cities are joining the list of hot spots every few days. Health care systems are stretched to their breaking points. Local funds are running short. Well, we're going to hear now from reporters in two very different cities, both of which have major problems. Kate Wells of Michigan Radio is here to talk about the situation in Detroit.

Hi, Kate.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And we are also going to hear from Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who has been tracking problems in Albany, Ga.

Hi, Grant.


KELLY: Hey there.

OK. So, Kate, you start. Detroit - big city; we all know it. What is unique about what's unfolding there?

WELLS: Yeah. Well, it's really bearing the brunt of the cases here in the state. So statewide in Michigan, we've got a lot of cases. We've got 7,600 cases, 259 deaths statewide. And the majority really are in the Detroit metro area. So no surprise you're seeing hospitals in this area hit capacity. And there's this visceral sense in this area that you know somebody or you know of somebody at this point who has died, whether it was a state representative who passed away over the weekend, a Detroit police captain last week. We learned today about two public school staffers. And the biggest concern here is that this is a virus that is hitting an already vulnerable population - right? - in metro Detroit. There's a large community with underlying health issues that make this disease so much worse. One person that we talked to, Jonathan Stillo - he's a medical anthropologist at Wayne State University, and he says this is the big concern.

JONATHAN STILLO: African American folks in Detroit have higher rates of asthma. They have higher rates of diabetes. They have higher rates of some of these conditions that we think might make outcomes worse. You're sort of layering biological problems on top of already existing social problems - issues of lack of health care, lack of insurance, unstable housing and things like that.

KELLY: So, Kate, a population that, as you said, is especially vulnerable - when you talk to health care workers on the front lines there in Detroit, what do they say?

WELLS: Right, so it's that combination of things. You've got the hot spot that they're dealing with and then these underlying health conditions. And the health care workers say that this means that the seriousness and the suddenness of the cases that they are seeing is just staggering for them. One nurse described it to me like an avalanche. They're seeing, you know, moms who delivered babies who present with sudden preeclampsia and then start coughing up blood...

KELLY: Oh, God. Yeah.

WELLS: ...35-year-olds who seem to just crash suddenly. And governors are putting out - the governor's putting out calls for doctors, nurses, loosening regulations around who can practice. But the thing that I'm repeatedly struck by is this sense of frustration from these health care workers - right? - this feeling of almost being disposable or expendable. They are being exposed to this virus, put on quarantine and then called back two days later, or they're making their own masks. One nurse that we talked with spoke about this. We're not using her name because she's been told not to talk to the media.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: I feel like when we look retrospectively, we're going to feel really ashamed at how we treated our providers. And we'll look back at the number of deaths of providers and just wonder how we could have let that happen.

KELLY: So some awful stories unfolding there in Detroit - let me turn now to Georgia and Grant Blankenship.

Grant, you have been tracking cases in Albany, Ga., which - they have seen a huge spike in a place that is way smaller than Detroit. Why? What's happening?

BLANKENSHIP: Well, it began with a funeral that drew congregations from two large local churches and extended families. And funerals in the South - they come with lots of other family get-togethers. There's lots of hugs. It's really the opposite of social distancing. And in that mix was someone who was unknowingly positive for coronavirus. So that funeral was February 29. The first six recorded coronavirus infections at the local hospital were recorded about 16 days later, right at the long end of what we know now is the coronavirus incubation period. And now 16 days on from that, there's almost 300 cases and close to 20 deaths. There's more when you add in surrounding counties. Now, that may not sound like much if you're in New York or someplace like that, but there's just under 90,000 people in Albany. So per capita, those numbers give the infection rate in Albany near parity with Wuhan, China, at its peak.

KELLY: Wow. And more people have died there in Albany than in the capital of the state in Atlanta. Why? What's happening there?

BLANKENSHIP: Well, as in Detroit, poverty and health care access play a huge role. Many people in southwest Georgia just don't have access to health care. And then there are all the health problems we know were already epidemic and largely untreated in the South, like obesity, hypertension, diabetes. And, you know, those are problems in Albany, too. Lamont Smith is a doctor specializing in emergency medicine who pitched in for a week at the main hospital in Albany. And he said without exception, the patients he saw die were suffering from some combination of those conditions.

LAMONT SMITH: That is the population that is most at risk because those are the diseases that are there. And these folks are not out, you know, running two miles every morning or going to the gym before going to work. You know, they're living their lives and, you know, trying to make ends meet.

KELLY: Reporting there from Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting and Kate Wells of Michigan Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells is an award-winning reporter who covers politics, education, public policy and just about everything in between for Iowa Public Radio, and is based in Cedar Rapids. Her work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She's also contributed coverage to WNYC in New York, Harvest Public Media, Austin Public Radio (KUT) and the Texas Tribune. Winner of the 2012 regional RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award and NBNA Eric Sevareid Award for investigative reporting, Kate came to Iowa Public Radio in 2010 from New England. Previously, she was a news intern for New Hampshire Public Radio.
Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.
Kate Wells
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."
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